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bramble scramble

In preparing to bid adieu to Georgia after many years working and living there, D’s friend had scribbled down a short bucket list of hikes, treks, and bike routes he wanted to traverse before leaving the country for good. After spending a week in the capital, D was all too happy to get out of Tbilisi and help him check a few items off the list. Birtvisi, a ruined medieval fortress nestled in the limestone cliffs of a small river gorge about an hour outside the city was the first stop on the itinerary.

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Located in Algeti National Park, which lies due west from Tbilisi, Birtvisi is one of the most easily accessible day hikes and a favorite among the locals. There were a couple of people camping beneath the imposing limestone cliffs that mark the beginning of the Birtvisi circuit, but it was clearly early in the season and they were among the first brave souls to venture out into the wilderness this year.

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Algeti lies in the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus mountains, which could be glimpsed in the distance, a dusting of snow still covering their tops. The trail ambles down into a wooded area before ascending into the limestone cliffs, looping around part of the gorge, and then returning back down to a campsite beneath one of Algeti’s taller peaks. It is possible to scale the limestone peak to reach the Birtvisi ruins that sit atop it without doing the 5-mile circuit, but that wouldn’t make for much of a day hike.

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Remarkably, someone had made the effort to plot the trail using OpenStreetMap, which enabled D’s friend to use GPS to keep on the right track despite the trail’s obvious disuse during the preceding winter months. Even so, there were parts that required backtracking where the faint trail disappeared entirely and the complete lack of trail markers made it impossible to guess which way to tread.

After exploring the remains of an ancient church that seems to continue to serve as a place of quiet worship for mountain hermits, D and his friend ascended a plateau that offered a stunning vista of Algeti’s rock formations. The remains of the Birtvisi watchtower occupied a central position in the jagged panorama, though the distance to its peak diminished somewhat its prominence.

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Hiking on flat ground, straying a couple meters from the trail is of little import. In the mountains, a similarly small difference can prove disastrous. Shortly after leaving the plateau, all signs of the trail vanished completely, prompting D’s friend to consult the digital map. The GPS indicated that the path across the cliffs along which D and his friend were advancing closely followed the trail plotted by previous hikers. Yet, it was always a few meters off, which soon enough proved cause for concern.

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Not only did this path seem not to lead back towards the valley, as it should have, but also each attempt at blazing a downward track back towards the trail indicated by the GPS was quickly thwarted by the thorny thickets that covered the Algeti slopes. After laboring for 15 minutes through the brambles, D’s friend seemed to find a more forgiving downward route, but it ended abruptly at the top of a sheer cliff. All told, D and his friend lost around 40 minutes scrambling through dense, barbed vegetation before finally retracing their steps to the plateau and, by closely tracking the GPS trail, finding the narrow gully that led the way down towards the valley floor.

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At last, the trail deposited D and his friend at the base of the watchtower peak, and they followed the steep path up to the rocky outcrop that held the Birtvisi remains. D had a moment of doubt and trepidation as he scaled a steep section of rock that led to the watchtower, wondering how he would climb back down the exposed limestone wall. He had packed poorly, leaving his hiking boots at home, and only had a pair of sneakers for the hike. Fortunately, they did not fail him.

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